By now you’ve likely heard the news that a Nevada parole board voted to grant O.J. Simpson parole after he served nine years behind bars. During his hearing last month, parole board members said Simpson had no criminal convictions prior to the robbery that landed him in prison.
However, according to The New York Times, Simpson did in fact have a prior conviction: In 1989, he pleaded no contest to battering his then-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson. Members of the Nevada Board of Parole Commissioners reportedly were not aware of this conviction when they made their decision. So how did this happen?
The Myth of the Nationwide Criminal Search
According to the article, Nevada officials did not find this conviction when they queried the FBI’s National Crime Information Center (NCIC) while drafting a 2008 pre-sentencing report. In response to The New York Times’ questions, the parole board searched the NCIC again and still did not find any record of the 1989 conviction. To many people in the investigations field, this kind of oversight is not surprising. As I wrote in a previous Hillard Heintze blog, a comprehensive national criminal database does not exist — contrary to what pop culture and companies advertising instant background checks may lead you to believe. The NCIC, which is available to law enforcement agencies, is the closest thing the U.S. has to a national criminal database. But, as demonstrated in the Simpson case, even this resource can be incomplete.
One of my colleagues, a former police detective, once told me a story about going to interview someone and a family member told her the individual was currently in jail in another state. My colleague was suspicious since she had already searched the subject through the NCIC and did not find any record of this person having recently been arrested. However, she later called the jail directly and confirmed the subject was in fact behind bars — the NCIC just did not show any record of the arrest.
In O.J. Simpson’s case, his 1989 misdemeanor conviction did not appear in the NCIC. However, the case does show up when searching the Superior Court public database in Los Angeles County, where the case originated. As The New York Times pointed out, the NCIC largely depends on local and state law enforcement agencies voluntarily providing it complete, accurate and updated information, which often does not happen.
For a Thorough Check, Search Multiple Sources
While the general public, including private sector firms like Hillard Heintze, do not have access to the NCIC, we still run into issues with incomplete databases. In a recent Hillard Heintze case, I searched a subject through a statewide criminal database and did not identify any criminal charges. However, when I searched an individual courthouse in the county where the subject lived, I found a criminal case that did not appear in my statewide search.
Unfortunately, these incidents happen all the time. To decrease the chances of missing an important criminal case, we query a mix of commercial, courthouse and publicly available state law enforcement databases — an often tedious process. Individuals and companies in need of a thorough criminal check should make sure they hire people who are knowledgeable about the court system and the nuances of various criminal databases and search portals.